We are now just days away from the start of the 2018/19 Championship season with plenty of football to look forward to once again. This is the third instalment of four preview pieces that VAVEL UK will be releasing before the big kick-off on Friday night between Reading and Derby County at the Madejski Stadium.
This is the most exciting period of the year for the majority of football supporters with every club aspiring to have a successful season. This piece takes a look at what to expect from Middlesbrough, Millwall, Norwich City, Nottingham Forest, Preston North End and Queens Park Rangers.
How did they perform in 2017/18?
The best-performing team within this group last season was Middlesbrough. They did not make the start to the season they would have hoped for after a summer of spending by Garry Monk. They were languishing outside the play-offs when the club dismissed him in December.
He was replaced by experienced manager Tony Pulis who was able to turn their form around and guide them to a place in the play-offs. However, they were knocked out by Steve Bruce's Aston Villa side courtesy of a single goal from Mile Jedinak in the first leg at the Riverside. Boro will be looking to go one better this season and secure automatic promotion.
Both Millwall and Preston arguably massively overachieved last season as they both put in serious challenges for a place in the play-offs, only to miss out in the last few games of the season. They both have very good managers at this level in the form of Neil Harris and Alex Neil, who both got the best out of the players they had at their disposal throughout the campaign.
Considering it was their first season back in the Championship after securing promotion via the play-offs in League One, the Lions were particularly impressive and were competing against clubs who had spent far more than they had. It will be interesting to see if both of these sides can make further progress this season.
The 2017/18 season was a transitional one for Norwich, with young German manager Daniel Farke stepping into the dugout at Carrow Road. Farke was keen to usher in his own style of playing from his days in Germany, as Borussia Dortmund reserve team’s manager. This patient style of play seemed to have an immediate positive effect, with the Canaries only losing three of their first 13 games to put them in a play-off position come late October.
However, Norwich then went on a contrasting run by only winning one of their next 10 matches up until Christmas. Farke was able to get Norwich back in the play-off hunt though, with them winning five of their next seven to put themselves in a great position heading down the season stretch. The Canaries could not kick-on however, winning just three of their last 16 games and finishing in a lowly fourteenth place.
It has without doubt been a difficult couple of years for Queens Park Rangers supporters, and last season was no different. It was hoped that Ian Holloway could get the club challenging for promotion back to the Premier League but it was never really on the cards, despite a number of one-off performances.
The squad remains very imbalanced with a lack of quality throughout. The club have since replaced Holloway with Steve McClaren, which has certainly raised the eyebrows of many supporters. McClaren has had to deal with a transfer embargo this summer which could see the club drawn into a relegation scrap.
It was Forest who finished furthest down the table out of all of these teams last season. Their safety was secured with four games to go, which was an improvement on the previous season. They began the season under the management of Mark Warburton who began to build a squad of young, exciting players. However, the club's hierarchy became frustrated with his side's inconsistent results and defensive fragility which resulted in him losing his job just after Christmas with the Reds way off the play-offs.
His replacement was Aitor Karanka, who came in midway through the January transfer window, shortly after Forest's shock 4-2 triumph over Premier League side Arsenal in the FA Cup. Whilst results did not really improve under his management, progress was being made, especially defensively. He will be expected to have the Reds challenging at the opposite end of the table this season.
A successful transfer window?
After a heavy summer of spending this time last year, Boro have been more careful with their money this time round. They have still spent a significant amount on the likes of Patrick McNair and Aden Flint who have joined from Sunderland and Bristol City respectively, but they are two proven performers at this level with little risk attached to them. The most surprising aspect of Boro's transfer window so far is arguably the sale of striker Patrick Bamford to Leeds United. The 24-year-old became a fan's favourite at the Riverside but clearly was not rated that highly by Pulis, shown by the fact he has allowed him to join a direct rival.
There could still be another significant outgoing from the club before the transfer window slams shut next week. Adama Traoré, who was a key player for Boro throughout last season, has been heavily linked with a move to newly-promoted Wolverhampton Wanderers. With Traoré rumoured to have a release clause in his contract, it could be a nervous wait for the transfer window to shut for many of the club's supporters.
There has been a very limited amount of transfer activity at Millwall so far, which is perhaps unsurprising due to their limited resources in comparison to other sides in the Championship. They have signed Murray Wallace on a free transfer from Scunthorpe United which remains their only permanent addition to date.
Bolton Wanderers goalkeeper Ben Amos has also joined the club on a loan deal. The likes of Noah Chemsain, Harry Toffolo, Kris Twardek and Harry Smith have all departed the club to join Colchester United, Lincoln City, Sligo Rovers and Macclesfield Town respectively. Brighton man Jiří Skalák has also penned a long-term deal with the club. Harris will most likely be happy to try and push on this season with the same squad of players as he had at his disposal last season.
Norwich have done some shrewd business in this year's shortened window, with some widely experienced players coming through the doors at Carrow Road. The Canaries did suffer a huge loss in the summer with last year’s star man James Madison making the step-up to the Premier League to join Leicester City.
Farke has only spent money on three of his arrivals in the form of Ben Marshall from Wolverhampton Wanderers, Moritz Leitner from Augsburg and Emilianio Buendia from Getafe. Leiiner and Marshall should do really well in this division, while Argentine-attacking midfielder Buendia is more of a wildcard. The free transfer pickups of goalkeeper, Tim Krul and Finish international striker, Teemu Pukki is also great business from Norwich.
It could well be argued that Forest have had the best transfer window in the Championship this summer as Karanka has been backed heavily by the club's hierarchy. The club have spent in the region of £25 million on eleven new additions with Tobias Figueiredo, Michael Dawson, Jack Robinson, Costel Pantilimon, Lewis Grabban, Gil Dias, Luke Steele, Jack Colback, Hillal Soudani, João Carvalho and Diogo Gonçalves all arriving at The City Ground. These additions have improved Karanka's options considerably and there could yet be more signings to come before the end of the window.
The Reds have also had to ship a considerable amount of players out of the club to make room for the new signings. The likes of Eric Lichaj, Armand Traore, David Vaughan, Jack Hobbs, Jason Cummings, Jorge Grant, Tyler Walker, Barrie McKay and more have all left the club either on a permanent basis or on loan. Karanka made certain players aware that they were not part of his plans at the end of last season and there are likely to be more departures in the next week or so.
Similarly to Millwall, Preston's transfer business this summer has also largely gone under the radar due to the fact that they have not spent anywhere near the amount that some of their Championship counterparts have invested. However, the likes of Andrew Hughes, Jordan Storey, Graeme Burke, Michael Crowe and Michael Howard have all arrived at the club and could be useful additions.
They have allowed one key player to leave the club as full-back Greg Cunningham joined newly-promoted Cardiff City for around £4 million. Apart from that, the majority of the squad from last season remains together and they will be hoping to make another push for the play-offs.
There is not a lot of transfer news to talk about in regards to Queens Park Rangers, mainly due to the fact that the club currently find themselves under a transfer embargo for breaking Financial Fair Play rules. They have managed to bring in Toni Leistner on a free transfer from Union Berlin but he remains their only addition. The likes of Robinson, Alex Finney, Jamie Mackie and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas have all left the club and there could be more departures to come as the club looks to slash their wage bill further.
Players to look out for
Adama Traoré - Middlesbrough
It is clear to see why there has been so much speculation linking the 22-year-old forward with a move to newly-promoted Wolves. He has an abundance of ability but it is his lack of consistency which is why he has been playing in the Championship of late and not at a much higher level. It remains to be seen whether he can ever find this consistency, but time is still very much on his side at such a young age.
If Boro can hang on to him this summer, it would arguably boost their promotion chance significantly. He featured regularly for Pulis throughout last season and he will be keen for him to remain at the club. Wolves may well be tempted to meet Traoré's release clause which is believed to be around £18 million before the window slams shut which could leave Boro looking for a last minute replacement.
Lee Gregory - Millwall
The 29-year-old striker has now been a key player at The Den for the past couple of years. He has almost been ever-present in the starting line-up and has formed a very good partnership strike partner with Steve Morison. He perhaps should score more goals than he does, but he brings so much more to the team than just that, mainly due to his impressive work rate.
He has recently had his contract extended by the club, meaning that he will have the chance to build on his progress this season. He will be hoping that he can try and score more goals and help ensure that the Lions finish within the play-off places this season, after narrowly missing out last time.
Moritz Leitner - Norwich City
Leitner was one of Norwich’s main summer signings and is the man to watch this season. The 25-year-old defensive midfielder was a very promising youth talent at Borussia Dortmund and he managed to clock up nearly 50 appearances for them, which included their 2012 Bundesliga title victory and a run to the 2013 UEFA Champions League final.
Leitner also impressed during a two-year loan spell with Stuttgart. After a couple of years in the doldrums he got a much needed loan move to Norwich this January and he made enough of an impact for Farke to make the move permanent. With youth still on his side, this move to Norwich is a real chance for Leitner to reignite his career.
João Carvalho - Nottingham Forest
The arrival of the 21-year-old for £13 million this summer from Benfica is probably the signing which has sparked the most excitement out of all the arrivals at The City Ground this summer. The final third was an area of the pitch that the Reds had to add quality to this summer and the attacking midfielder certainly does that.
A significant amount of pressure will arrive due to the hefty price tag, and due to the fact he is already being compared to the likes of Rúben Neves. However, Carvalho has already shown his quality in pre-season and if he can quickly adapt to the physicality of the Championship, he could be a very impressive addition for the Reds and make a huge impact in the division.
Callum Robinson - Preston North End
Following two successful loan spells from Aston Villa, the 23-year-old forward joined Preston permanently on a three-year deal around two years ago. Not many of the club's supporters would have expected him to go on and make as much of an impact as he has done. He has become a very important part of Neil's side.
He made a total of 40 appearances for Preston in the Championship last season and found the back of the net eight times. He is likely to want to improve on that tally this season but he also provides a lot more for his team than just goals. His pace and trickery down the flanks sees him create a number of chances for his teammates.
Luke Freeman - Queens Park Rangers
The 26-year-old midfielder is arguably yet to reach his prime, but already has vast experience in the Championship with both QPR and previously with Bristol City. He featured regularly for the club last season, missing just one league fixture. However, he only managed to score five goals which is a disappointing return for a player with his quality.
His influence in midfield could be of even greater importance this season due to the lack of additions the club have been able to make due to the transfer embargo imposed on them. This could add significant pressure onto Freeman's shoulder to deliver and provide the creative spark for his side.
Young players to look out for
Paddy McNair - Middlesbrough
Having come through the youth system at Manchester United, the 23-year-old midfielder undoubtedly has a considerable amount of quality. However, it never quite worked out for him at Old Trafford which resulted in his permanent move to Sunderland.
Despite the fact that it was a dismal season for the Black Cats which resulted in relegation to League One, McNair was still able to make a positive impression. He managed to make just 16 league appearances across the season, but found the back of the net five times, with a number of these being sublime strikes. It will be interesting to see how he fits into Boro's side this season and whether he can replicate those performances.
Jake Cooper - Millwall
The 23-year-old centre-back was one of the Lions' most impressive performers last season as they narrowly missed out on a place in the play-offs. It was his first full season at the club having joined on a permanent deal last summer from Reading on a three-year deal.
He has all the necessary attributes to develop into a very solid defender and as well as being resolute at the back, he also has the height to cause problems from set pieces at the opposite end of the pitch. He picked up four goals for the Lions last season, with a number of them coming at vital times in the season.
Ben Godfrey - Norwich City
In terms of a young star to watch out for at Norwich, 20-year-old defensive midfielder or centre-back Godfrey is as good a pick as any. Godfrey had not played that much senior football when Norwich signed him from York City two-and-a-half years ago, but the Canaries gave him the chance to prove himself last season when he went on loan to League One side Shrewsbury Town.
Godfrey would prove to be a huge part of a great season for Shrewsbury, with them reaching the final of the Checkatrade Trophy and finishing third in the league. Godfrey played in 40 of Shrewsbury’s league games and was an integral part of their three at the back system. The season would ultimately end in heartbreak for Godfrey and Shrewsbury, with them losing at Wembley for a second time after an extra-time loss to Rotherham United in the play-off final. With other defenders at Norwich ageing there is a good chance Godfrey could break into the first team this year.
Ryan Yates - Nottingham Forest
Before pre-season, the 20-year-old midfield was probably a player that Karnaka would have been planning on loaning out for the season to gain some more experience, as he has done with both Grant and Walker. However, his performances for the Reds in the last week have resulted in him giving Karanka a big decision to make. He could yet play a part for the Reds this season.
He spent last season on two separate loan spells at Notts County and Scunthorpe United, impressing at both clubs. However, his chances of first team action at Forest at this season have not been helped following the return of Colback on a season-long loan from Newcastle United. Yates looks to be the latest youth academy product capable of making an impact for the first team.
Ben Pearson - Preston North End
The 23-year-old midfielder has really made an impression at Deepdale in recent times. He has the ability to dictate games from midfield with his composure on the ball and impressive passing range. Similarly to McNair, Pearson also came through the youth academy at Manchester United, admittedly failing to make a single appearance for the first team.
Pearson managed to make a total of 28 appearances for Preston in the Championship last season, which perhaps would have disappointed him considering he made three more the previous year. He will be looking to solidify his place in the starting line-up this season and ensure that Preston are pushing for a place in the play-offs once again.
Ryan Manning - Queens Park Rangers
With the transfer embargo currently preventing McClaren from spending any money this summer, the club's younger players have become even more important to the first team. 22-year-old midfielder Manning is certainly a player who could respond well to this added responsibility and make a significant impact.
He only made a total of 15 appearances for the club last season in the Championship but did manage to find the back of the net twice. His first team opportunities are likely to be enhanced in the upcoming campaign due to the transfer embargo and it will be interesting to see whether he can take the chances that come his way.